When President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address Tuesday night, television viewers saw a sea of red and blue in ties and suits as Democratic and Republican Congress members sat together for the first time in 89 years.
The break from the tradition of partisan seating, spearheaded by Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, aimed to send a message of bipartisan spirit and civility.
“The State of the Union (addresses) have become more like a high school pep rally and we want to change the tone and show the public that we can work together,” said Udall.
While some observers praised the bipartisan effort, some detractors doubted that it was more than a show. Yet, Colorado’s Republican and Democratic House and Senate members meet monthly — most recently Wednesday evening in Udall’s office.
Partisan seating began in the House of Representatives in 1845, and the tradition continued in 1913 when President Woodrow Wilson presented his State of the Union address at the first joint session of Congress.
“I’m an old mountaineer. I think the aisle that divides us has become as high as a mountain and that it’s time to climb that mountain,” said the Democrat from Eldorado Springs.
Like most rebellions, this tradition defiance began haphazardly.
“This whole thing has been very organic,” said Udall this week.
A major hurdle, particularly for Colorado’s delegation, was securing seats together because the rules don’t allow members to reserve or save seats. A few hours before the address, some congressional staffers were uninformed of how the plan would be executed.
“You can’t reserve a seat,” said Catherine Mortensen, press secretary of Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn. “He can’t sit there for hours holding seats and no one can go in until after the security sweep.”
The problem was resolved by Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette and Ed Perlmutter and Republican Reps. Mike Coffman and Cory Gardner who took turns sitting in the chamber to save seats for their Colorado compatriots, Sen. Michael Bennet and Reps. Lamborn, Jared Polis and Scott Tipton.
“We had a lot of time to talk with each other,” said Perlmutter, who laughed about guarding the seats from the coveting eyes of congress members from Massachusetts, Delaware and Mississippi.
“It was fun, but it was a little outside the comfort zone,” said the Democratic congressman who was seated between Republicans Coffman and Gardner.
Working in a bipartisan fashion isn’t new to Perlmutter, who said the Colorado delegation meets monthly to discuss issues affecting Colorado such as energy resources, hospitals, light rail and the new veterans cemetery in Lamborn’s 5th Congressional District.
“I’m very optimistic that we will continue working together as a team,” he said.
Perlmutter recalled that former Rep. Wayne Allard “was fantastic about getting the delegation together once a month in his office.” However, he said, unlike 10 or 20 years ago, the delegation members don’t socialize because they fly home instead of remaining in Washington.
Bennet, who sat between Republicans Gardner and Coffman, said the bipartisan seating arrangement was a little subdued compared to State of the Union addresses in years past.
“But, I also thought that people enjoyed very much the chance to sit in a different way, as Republicans and Democrats — as Coloradans and as Americans,” he said. “I certainly did, and I hope small, but powerful gestures like this one bode well for the prospect of bipartisan work in Washington, because that’s exactly what the people of Colorado want us to do.”
“It was fine with me,” said Tipton with a chuckle. “I’ll do anything it takes for the sake of jobs, the economy and reducing the size of government.”
Tipton said that he disagreed with his Democratic peers on the concept of federal government being the driving engine to create jobs. “The private sector and small businesses are the economic drivers,” he said.
“Sitting together is important symbolically, but the real sign of change will be if we can work together legislatively,” said Polis, who was flanked by DeGette and Coffman.
“Despite our differences, the Colorado delegation often works together to promote and protect our state. I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle on issues important to our state, our country and our world,” he said.
Gardner’s communications director Rachel Boxer said, “The Congressman was glad that everyone sat together, but he doesn’t want that to distract from the task at hand, which is getting our economy back on track and getting this country moving again.”
“As for working together, we have already seen instances of bipartisanship,” she said. “Members of both parties voted to cut their congressional budgets by 5 percent, and we think there are real areas we can work together when it comes to cutting even more spending and balancing the budget.”
“The change in seating was a small, symbolic gesture to show state solidarity. The Colorado delegation has a long history of working together to promote our state and help our citizens,” said Lamborn, who was seated between Bennet and Tipton.
“However, where I sit is not as important as where I stand. My voters know they can count on me to stand for freedom and limited government.”
Some seating invitations didn’t pan out. Udall, who had invited Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, to sit with him, wound up seated next to ultra conservative Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who campaigned for Bennet’s Republican opponent, Ken Buck, last year.
“(DeMint) is about as far to the conservative right as you can get,” said Udall.
The official request to break the partisan seating protocol was initiated about two weeks before Obama’s State of the Union address. Udall and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Reps. Health Shuler, D-North Carolina, and Paul A. Gosar, R-Arizona, wrote a formal letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“As we all know, the tenor and debate surrounding our politics has grown ever more corrosive — ignoring the fact that while we may take different positions, we all have the same interests. This departure from statesmanship and collegiality is fueled, in part, by contentious campaigns and divisive rhetoric. Political differences will always generate healthy debate, but over time the dialogue has become more hateful and at times violent,” stated the letter that was also signed by 60 members of Congress.
Udall said that it was a reference to the tragic shooting that critically in killed six people and injured 14 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., during a Jan. 8 meeting with constituents at a Tucson grocery store.
“It is a wakeup call,” declared Udall.
“Partisanship, at its best, is about promoting ideas,” he said. “But partisanship for its own sake, as we’ve seen, has been detrimental and destructive.”
Even President Barack Obama applauded the idea during his State of the Union address, but he cautioned that actions must follow the bipartisan banter.
“What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight but whether we can work together tomorrow,” he said.
Udall said he hopes the spirit of camaraderie continues in the future.
Congresswoman DeGette said she plans to host a bipartisan dinner for the Colorado delegation at her condo in Washington. Will there be more dinners and potluck suppers in the future?
“Congressman Gardner is still apartment hunting in D.C., so he won’t be hosting any House parties in the immediate future,” said Boxer. “But he does make a great smoked pork shoulder, even though he has a no-pork legislative policy.